Open borders: the only realistic policy

23 Sep

There has been plenty of talk over the past few weeks about the Labour Party’s new leader Jeremy Corbyn representing something new in British politics. Commentators point to the galvanizing effect that his campaign had on Labour supporters and to his ‘authenticity’, his distance from the politics of spin. But we should remember that Corbyn’s political programme is very old. More important, his vintage ideas have already failed politically. And, when they failed back in the 1980s, they were supported not only by a few hundred thousand Labour Party members, but also by millions of trades unionists in a very extensive and active political movement of working people. The failure of the old left’s politics the first time around resulted in the death of that active movement of working people, leaving the empty shells that trades unions are today.

Those who are hoping for change in Europe would therefore be wise not to invest their hopes in the old left second time around. The politics of immigration provide a vivid illustration of the limitations of the old left.

Corbyn’s victory comes against the background of the largest migration crisis in Europe since the 1940s. As refugees fight it out with the riot police, the razor wire and border controls are going up across Europe, and UKIP has promised to make immigration the key issue in the forthcoming referendum campaign on Britain’s continuing membership of the EU. Although Corbyn has always maintained an unusually positive stance towards immigration,

his campaign did not feature any specific positions on immigration policy. Moreover there are two fundamental weaknesses in the old left’s politics that indicate that he will have no political solution to the migration impasse.

Corbyn himself summarized the first political weakness of the old left’s position in his first newspaper article as Labour Party leader:

‘The human response of ordinary people across Europe in the past few weeks has demonstrated the thirst for a different kind of politics and society. The values of compassion, social justice, solidarity and internationalism have been at the heart of the democratic eruption in Labour’s hugely expanded ranks. Those values are embedded deeply in the culture of the British people.’

Corbyn is right that the uniting of compassion and social justice, on the one hand, with solidarity and internationalism, on the other, lies at the heart of the old left’s politics that have been revived in the Labour Party. The old left’s list of ‘values’ is superficially attractive but it contains a fatal flaw. By representing solidarity and internationalism as matters of compassion and social justice, the old left has played down the central aspect of internationalism – the common interests of wage earners in one country with the wage earners of other countries. The result of these politics is that in so far as solidarity and internationalism really are ‘embedded deeply in the culture of the British people’, as Corbyn claims, then it is only as matters of compassion and social justice, not of democracy and self-interest. As a consequence, most people in Britain can spontaneously understand the compelling compassionate case for helping the Syrian refugees, but it is less obvious to them how letting in these desperate people is anything other than an act of humanitarian altruism. And why letting in millions of economic migrants is in their interests remains something of a mystery to them.

This creates a tension between the old left and its potential supporters. When working classs voters express hostility to immigration, they appear to suffer a compassion failure and it is tempting to explain that as an expression of ingrained popular racism. As a result, the left often finds itself either bemoaning the supposedly racist attitudes of ordinary citizens or adapting to those citizens’ fear of immigration by promoting ‘firm but fair’ immigration controls, as the last Labour government did.

One leftist thinker who has pointed out the problem that arises from this tension between the left’s compassionate commitment to social justice and its aspirations to internationalism is Slavoj Zizek. In an article on the current refugee crisis, Zizek writes:

‘It is not inherently racist or proto-fascist for host populations to talk of protecting their ‘way of life’: this notion must be abandoned.’

It does not follow from a desire to protect their way of life that people think others threaten that way of life, or don’t deserve it, on the grounds of those others’ racial difference, still less of their racial inferiority. Some people may think that Poles or Afghans or Eritreans are racially inferior to the Brits, but there are plenty of other reasons why people are opposed to immigration. While the supposed ‘negative cultural impact’ of immigrations remains an important aspect of reported opposition to immigration in the UK, the perceived negative impact on public services and the economy appears to be a more influential view. Ordinary British people are afraid that their access to jobs, housing, or public services is threatened by a migration process over which they seem to have no control. In any case, how is it supposed to help either citizens or migrants for the left to point the finger at its own potential supporters and shout racism when they oppose immigration?

Zizek is right to argue that to demand ‘tolerance’ and ‘compassion’ from ordinary people in these circumstances is an inadequate response to the issues posed by mass migration. Instead, as Zizek puts it:

‘The only way to break this deadlock is to move beyond mere tolerance: we should offer others [refugees and migrants] not just our respect, but the prospect of joining them in a common struggle, since our problems today are problems we share.’

Zizek is surely correct that the only realistic long-term solution is for citizens and migrants to recognize their shared interests. What would such a recognition of shared interests mean for immigration policy? If we take seriously Zizek’s internationalist idea that Europe’s citizens really do share the problems faced by migrants, then we should indeed share them by opening our borders to those seeking to escape poverty, repression and war. Is Jeremy Corbyn likely to lead a political movement based on such a policy?

While Corbyn has on occasion blamed UKIP’s rise on racism, he has also consistently argued that immigrants represent a net gain to the economy and that both British citizens and migrants have an interest in good public services. However, it is essential to recognize that Corbyn’s version of a common interest is not the same as arguing that citizens and migrants both share the problems of exploitation and repression. Certainly, Corbyn’s position does not of itself lead to a policy of open borders. On the basis of his argument, immigrants are welcome for as long as they are a net gain to the economy and improve public services. The rest remains compassion. It might be tempting to respond to this by saying that there is not that much difference between Corbyn’s current position and open borders, and that his internationalism may yet embolden him to take the further step. But here we come across the second and deeper weakness in the old left’s politics. For the Corbynite left to embrace open borders would require a revolution in its outlook. It would require the old left to abandon its deepest political belief – its belief in state regulation.

Nobody exemplifies this problem on the old left better than Slavoj Zizek. Even though he sees clearly that compassion is not enough, and that the solution to the immigration question is for the left to lead a movement in which citizens make common cause with migrants, Zizek is still unable to grasp the implications of his own insight and take the logical next step that his own argument poses. Having talked about shared problems, he does not propose that Europe actually share the migrants’ problems by opening its borders. On the contrary, Zizek contemptuously dismisses this possibility:

‘The greatest hypocrites are those who call for open borders. They know very well this will never happen: it would instantly trigger a populist revolt in Europe. They play the beautiful soul, superior to the corrupted world while continuing to get along in it.’

Although he rightly criticizes those leftists who accuse ordinary people of racism, Zizek himself assumes that any attempt to challenge the masses’ defence of their ‘way of life’ is doomed to result in right-wing populist revolt. For all his talk of Europeans ‘joining migrants in common struggle’, Zizek’s peremptory rejection of open borders indicates that he does not really believe that that is possible. Having accused the proponents of open borders of being ‘beautiful souls’, Zizek then offers (apparently in all seriousness) a comically absurd account of what a ‘common struggle’ between migrants and European citizens requires. It is worth repeating his proposals because it illustrates the depth of the old left’s intellectual malaise.

Zizek makes four concrete proposals to deal with the current crisis. First he argues we need to continue with the existing elitist trend towards intergovernmentalism in Europe: ‘One thing is clear: national sovereignty will have to be radically redefined and new methods of global co-operation and decision-making devised.’

Second, according to Zizek, we need renewed coercive controls imposed by these intergovernmental mechanisms: ‘as a necessary consequence of this commitment, Europe should impose clear rules and regulations.’

Third, he proposes smarter peace-keeping and state-building intervention in the source countries for migration: ‘a new kind of international military and economic intervention will have to be invented – a kind of intervention that avoids the neocolonial traps of the recent past.’

In other words, Zizek proposes to enlarge, extend and reorganize the intergovernmental institutions that are currently relied on to shore up the existing global order. These are the very institutions that have evolved a fake version of internationalism in order to frustrate the democratic accountability of European governments to their citizens – as the recent Greek crisis dramatically demonstrated. They are the same institutions relied upon by the very Western states that have, over decades of imperialist and humanitarian meddling, reduced the Middle East, Afghanistan and North Africa to the chaos that has engendered the current refugee crisis. All this, Zizek proposes in the name of a ‘common struggle’ between those disenfranchised citizens and migrants. And he claims to be the realist!

Finally, Zizek’s argument regresses from the absurd to the insulting with his fourth proposal – the revival of communism as a long-term solution to the problem. Having proposed to aggrandize capitalism’s existing political structures, he offers up some radical pie in the sky.

Zizek’s failure of political imagination in respect of migration exemplifies the chief intellectual failure of the old left – its undying faith in the institutions of the capitalist state. There is little to suggest that Corbyn will have more political imagination than Zizek. Already Corbyn has made it clear that, like Zizek, his Labour Party is committed to the uniquely unaccountable intergovernmental state apparatus of the EU. While remaining in the EU may mean the continuation of free movement of people within the EU, free movement will be the work not of a political movement of citizens and migrants but of the remote and unaccountable institutions of the EU. Free movement under the EU treaties is not based on the shared interests of Europe’s working people but on the needs of European employers. And it will not offer any freedom of movement to people from outside the exclusive European club.

Corbyn’s support for the EU, like the rest of Corbyn’s old left political programme, suggests that, like Zizek, he will talk the talk of solidarity and common struggle but walk the walk of statism and regulation. The connection between the old left’s core commitment to social justice and its profound statism is not accidental. Social justice is something that can only be pursued by the state regulating society and redistributing resources. It is this prior commitment to the state’s policing and redistributive function, and not the building a common political movement among citizens and migrants, that will determine the Labour Party’s immigration policy, whoever ends up leading it into the next election.

The intellectual destructiveness of the old left’s obsolete political commitment to state regulation is particularly poignant in Zizek’s case because his own thinking on migration helps to explain why the very open borders argument that he rejects provides a realistic answer to the migration question for the left. Zizek argues that European populations are not necessarily racist when they wish to protect their ‘way of life’ from the imagined threat of immigration. But he does not pursue this insight to ask what does characterize this ‘way of life’ if it is not racism. This is odd, because a positive characterization of the European ‘way of life’ follows very clearly from another observation that he makes in the same piece:

‘Refugees are the price we pay for a globalised economy in which commodities – but not people – are permitted to circulate freely. The idea of porous borders, of being inundated by foreigners, is immanent to global capitalism.’

In other words, when Europeans try to protect their ‘way of life’ by demanding tougher immigration controls, they are trying to insulate themselves from the reality of the global economic and political order, to hope that that reality can be evaded or to ensure that only others will suffer its consequences. Theirs is a way of life that is understood as being inherently vulnerable to the fact that other people would like to share it. It is a way of life in which those others appear not as the hugely productive human beings that they are, but only as a threat to the available employment opportunities, housing stock, school places and so on. It is a way of life strongly influenced by the old left’s own commitment to the mainstream green idea that resources are fixed and limited.

So Zizek is right that the populist defence of this ‘way of life’ is not fundamentally racist. It is misanthropic. It is parochial. It is depoliticized. Rather than seeking to control the global economic processes that Europe’s citizens are subject to, the populist reaction endeavors to evade them. It is an escapist fantasy that dooms its believers to consuming the crumbs from the plutocrats’ table while the plutocrats’ placemen get on with policing humanity. It is a recipe for powerlessness. And, it is this political powerlessness that is the most important problem to be shared by citizens and migrants alike.

The political demand for open borders, by contrast, poses a realistic political way of life as opposed to tired Europe’s fantasising; a way of life based upon taking collective responsibility for our existence as human beings rather than trying to evade it; a way of life that is well adjusted to global reality. Open borders is not a political demand that will immediately appeal to a majority of people, and it will not save the Labour Party’s bacon at the next election. It is not ‘realistic’, if by ‘realistic’ you mean what will allow you to get your hands on the levers of the existing state apparatus at the next opportunity. But it is the only real basis upon which the ordinary citizens of Europe could make common cause with the rest of humanity and begin to take control of our societies from our corrupt and exhausted elites.

Peter Ramsay

The technocrats’ populist

21 Sep

Anyone who is serious about democracy in Europe will need to think long and hard about yesterday’s Greek election result. Syriza’s rise to political influence in Greece has been a disaster for democracy. Syriza’s major political achievement has been to depoliticise the Greek people, to convince them openly to agree to being ruled by someone other than their own elected representatives.

The turnout at around 55 per cent was low. This should not come as a surprise. Local authority elections generally have lower turnouts and, since Alex Tsipras had already signed away Greece’s sovereignty in the bailout deal in July, Greek voters were being asked to vote for a government with the powers of a local authority. The largest group of voters supported Tsipras’s Syriza party, endorsing the view that austerity implemented by a party that claims to be against it is the best that can be done. As low political horizons go, these are minimal indeed. The idea that the Greeks’ should have a national government accountable to themselves rather than to the Eurozone was marginalized, with the breakaway Popular Unity party achieving less than three per cent and no seats in parliament.

Alex Tsipras has pulled off a remarkable political feat. He now has the opportunity to become the modernising new broom in Greece, a new broom to be wielded by the Eurozone’s technocrats. And he has done that off the back of months of militant populist posturing in the bailout negotiations. How has he achieved that this astonishing volte face? The pivotal moment was his U-turn after the No vote in July’s referendum. Having mobilized the Greek people for a show of defiance, he then cut the ground from under it by immediately agreeing to what the Eurozone wanted. To many this looked like a betrayal of the party’s anti-austerity mandate. But Syriza came to power in January on a contradictory political platform of no to austerity, yes to the Eurozone. Tsipras has exploited that contradiction effectively. He survived the U-turn because having led the Greeks to make a show of defiance in the referendum, they were prepared to resign themselves immediately to the bailout deal since that was all that was on offer from the Eurozone, they were committed to remaining within. And, having survived that, Tsipras has now renewed his mandate by decisively seeing off the anti-Eurozone left in his own party. The Greek people have in the process openly endorsed a political arrangement in which their government will be the servant of distant, unaccountable powers.

It would be a mistake however to attribute Tsipras’s achievements only to his political cunning and skill. No doubt he has some of these talents, but it has to be recognised that he owes his current position to the fact that the wider Greek left was in no position to give the Greek people any confidence in their own capacity to take their political destiny into their own hands. The left was unable to inspire the Greek people to free itself from the clutches of the European banks that are demanding and, courtesy of the Eurozone, getting kilos of its flesh. The left was unable to give a lead with a clear independent platform that explained what a disaster Syriza’s contradictory position would prove. As a result, when the crunch came in July, Greek citizens had nowhere to go, except to make their show of defiance and then resign.

The politics of the Greek bailout involve the relations of a small, peripheral European nation to the Eurozone. By contrast the politics of the forthcoming British referendum involve the relations of a major European nation to the EU. There are significant differences between the two situations. However there is one critical question that is common to both. Are our governments to be accountable to us, their citizens, or will we allow them to be accountable instead to other European governments before they are accountable to us? For the process of insulating governmental decision-making from popular accountability is common to both the EU and the Eurozone. The left’s problem with inspiring a self-confident democratic movement is far from unique to Greece. With Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party opting to subordinate domestic political accountability to the EU apparatus, the Greek debacle demonstrates the urgent need to begin to address the left’s historic failing and to make an unambiguous case for the sovereignty of the people.

Peter Ramsay

Why Brexit is more than Lexit: Left Euroscepticism after Corbyn

14 Sep

Among the many questions flowing from Jeremy Corbyn’s victory in the Labour Party leadership contest on 12 September, is that of Corbyn’s stance on the European Union (EU), and Britain’s place within it. Corbyn has openly expressed his scepticism towards the EU while also claiming he would be happy to stay in a reformed EU. Veteran Guardian columnist Polly Toynbee identified Corbyn’s Euroscepticism as one of the greatest dangers of a Corbyn victory, while Financial Times columnist Phillip Stephens argues that Corbyn’s Euroscepticism has tilted the balance of British politics towards exit from the EU. Leading Blairite Chukka Umuna has resigned from the Labour shadow cabinet, citing Corbyn’s alleged Euroscepticism as the reason. But before launching into predictions of how Corbyn’s victory will affect the referendum’s outcome, it is necessary to examine some of the contradiction and confusion within British left Euroscepticism.

Corbyn’s studied ambivalence towards the EU expresses the currently inchoate character of leftwing British Eurosceptisicm. As Europe’s social democratic parties tacked towards the centre over the last 30 years and committed themselves to the technocratic modernisation embodied in the EU project, Euro-babble has tended to substitute itself for genuine internationalism on much of the left. Only a rump of isolated old social democrats were left clinging to Euroscepticism. The late Tony Benn denounced the EU for its oligarchic model of power that insulates bureaucrats from popular accountability, while late union leader Bob Crow attacked the EU for dismantling the border controls he argued were necessary to protect the welfare state and working class living standards. Corbyn himself has criticised the EU for allowing tax havens to flourish in its borders, and – piling up his ambivalent Euroscepticism to new levels of convolution and complexity – suggested that he would support leaving the EU if it agrees to trade away its vaunted ‘social protections’ in negotiations with British prime minister David Cameron. In other words, Corbyn may argue that Britain should leave the EU if the EU agrees to meet the British prime minister’s conditions for Britain remaining in the EU.

Corbyn’s equivocation on EU membership subordinates questions of democratic principle to a pragmatic calculation of the extent to which membership of the EU will advance or inhibit Labour Party economic and social policy. This unprincipled approach to such a fundamental political question is a warning of what is to come from Corbyn’s leadership, and it characterises the wider left case against the EU.

Earlier this year, Owen Jones sought to rally the Eurosceptic British Left with a call for ‘Lexit’ – the leftwing case for a British exit from the EU. As Jones made clear, much of this newfound Lexit sympathy is driven by witnessing the economic punishment inflicted on Greece by the EU creditor nations. Political commentators are of course entitled to change their mind just as much as anyone else. Yet the ease with which left-wing belief in the EU has dissipated exposes just how thin and naïve that belief in the EU must have been to begin with. To turn against the EU solely for its austerity policies is to obscure the history of EU political diktat, such as the repeat referendums inflicted on Ireland or how the EU ignored the outcome of the 2005 French and Dutch referendums. These crude impositions of technocratic rule were enforced long before the economic crisis gave the justification of urgency to EU technocracy. To accept arguments for Lexit only after its treatment of Greece would be to interpret the EU as a progressive project gone awry, rather than what it is, an institution designed to evade popular rule and democratic choice. Moreover, however brutal the EU’s treatment of Greece, it ultimately tells us little about whether or not Britain should remain a member-state – particularly given that Britain is not even a member of the Eurozone. So where does this leave the case for ‘Lexit’?

The very fact that Jones felt the need to rebrand British exit from the EU as ‘Lexit’ exposes his fear of making an argument openly in terms of national sovereignty. Jones’ fears of boosting nationalism and prompting a xenophobic rampage reveals more about Jones’ contempt and fear of the British working class than it tells us about working class voters themselves. Instead of staking a leftist claim to universal interests, evidently Jones believes he can only coax his readers into leaving the EU if the issue is cast in sectional terms that exclusively appeal to them. Unwilling to make an argument for popular sovereignty, Jones is left unable to provide any political coherence to left Euroscepticism. On the one hand, Jones positions the EU as a sinister foreign power intruding on Britain from the outside to thwart economic nationalisation and redistribution – as if Thatcherism had no domestic roots. On the other hand, Jones claims that the threat of Lexit is more important than actually leaving the EU. The threat alone, argues Jones, will encourage Germany to loosen its austerian stranglehold on the Eurozone’s weaker economies, and boost the flagging electoral fortunes of Podemos and Syriza.

It is difficult to think of an argument for Britain leaving the EU that undercuts itself so effectively, and that sacrifices international solidarity so readily. Let us leave Greece and Spain shackled to a more benign German hegemon, Jones tells us, while Britain retreats behind the walls of a social democratic Jerusalem once the corporate hirelings from Brussels have been thrown out. Here, there is no principled position on British membership of the EU, or even an appeal to the British demos – only an instrumental calculation about preserving the vote of struggling leftist parties across Europe. Surveying the arguments offered by Corbyn, Jones and their allies, the only common position that can underpin Lexit is economic nationalism. In other words, the EU cramps the nation-state’s capacity to protect national industries and defend welfare provisions and entitlements.

The problem with this position is that it is about the content of economic policy rather than the means through which such policy is decided. Ultimately, the democratic case against the EU is not about the content of economic policy – such as nationalisation versus privatisation – but about carving out the space democratically to decide on economic policy – or any other policy, for that matter. What is at stake in the question of EU membership is political form not content. And for better or worse, the political form of collective self-determination is still inescapably national – the sovereign state. There is no avoiding the fact that what is at stake in a British referendum is democratic restoration and popular sovereignty within Britain itself. That alone should be sufficient to garner leftwing support for Brexit.

Of course, democracy gives no immediate guarantee of the economic outcomes that Jones desires – and perhaps it is popular acceptance of austerity that Left Eurosceptics hope to outflank by imagining that an argument over Lexit can also win the popular battle against austerity. Yet popular sovereignty and democracy must remain the political priority for any progressive political opposition to the EU. The case for British exit from Europe is a national and popular one, not one that can be carried by an alliance of Islington Guardianistas and northern Labour voters. The democratic case against the EU also exposes the limited and parochial character of Jones’ Lexit vision, in which international solidarity is restricted to vainly hoping for German magnanimity towards Europe’s weaker economies. The democratic case against the EU requires not just Britain leaving the EU or more votes for Podemos and Syriza, but dismantling the EU as a whole across the entire continent, through a process of internal democratic renewal within each European nation. Brexit would be as good a place as any to start this process.

Philip Cunliffe

Swapping one mirage for another: the Left’s turn away from social Europe

10 Aug

Witnessing the punishment inflicted on Syriza by the European Union (EU) as well as that party’s own inept handling of the Eurozone crisis, the Left is recoiling from the ‘good Euro’ strategy – the hope for ending austerity within the Eurozone – and beating a hasty retreat to the shelter of the sovereign state. We have seen explicit calls for the restoration of fiscal and monetary sovereignty to national states, and even calls to explore political alternatives outside of the EU itself. Yet if ‘social Europe’ has been exposed as a mirage, the European Left now risks embracing another chimera – the vision of a social-democratic national state.

The sudden rush to the sovereign state is a remarkably rapid turn-around for the Left as a whole. Although there has long been a rump of old social-democrats suspicious of globalisation and its associated supranational institutions, over the last thirty years the larger portion of the Left subscribed to globalist ideologies and institutions in one form or another. On one end of the spectrum, ‘Third Way’-style movements saw the embrace of political centrism, international competitiveness, free trade and EU integration as a necessary part of progressive politics. On the other end, anti-globalisation activists and non-governmental organisations hoped that the global coordination of various social movements would allow them to ratchet above the nation-state onto a higher, transnational plane of progressive politics. Part of the problem with the latest about-face back towards the state is that the Left itself is not clear about what it is turning away from, and what it opposes in the EU. Stathis Kouvelakis denounces the EU as ‘imperialist’, while Cedric Durand sees the EU as a proto-state defined and captured by neo-liberal capitalist interests.

Durand’s piece exemplifies some of the confusion with which the Left has approached the EU. On the one hand, Durand criticises the EU for being too large and cumbersome to be easily shifted, making it rigid and insensitive to popular will. On the other hand, he criticises the EU for its tiny bureaucracy, having insufficient institutional capacity to effect any meaningful social and political transformation. On the one hand, monolithic and sprawling, on the other a stripped-back proto-state focused only on neo-liberal imperatives. Durand charges the EU with failing ‘to keep diverse societies and social strata together in turbulent times’. The implicit contrast here is between the ‘bad’ EU proto-state, stripped back to its core capacities to serve the interests of neoliberalism, and the supposedly good, progressive national state. But there are several problems with this contrast.

First, it is a mistake to see the EU as a state at all, whether proto-, imperialist, neoliberal or otherwise. To conceptually distinguish the EU bureaucracy from the bureaucracy of its member-states as Durand does is a cardinal error. For what need does the EU have of its own independent bureaucracy, given that the EU itself is nothing more than the intermingling and regional coordination of these very same national bureaucracies? As Christopher Bickerton’s work has shown, the EU is not a new type of state, but a new protuberance from the old nation-state. The EU is the external manifestation of European states’ attempts to manage and defuse popular conflict and social struggle over the last third of the twentieth century, in which the defeat and retreat of social democracy was institutionalised at the pan-European level. Thus what both the pro- and anti-EU Left fails to recognise is that the EU is built on the failures and compromises of late Cold War-era social democracy.

Now that the EU itself is tottering, it would be a mistake to expect social democracy to emerge from the rubble, as the EU itself is built on the ruins of social democracy. Even Durand seems to implicitly concede this, given the limited content that he gives to national sovereignty: ‘Formulating policy proposals guaranteeing people a safety net during this transition will be key to facilitating new electoral victories, beginning with Spain’s elections this fall.’ Here, the minimal protections against destitution offered by old-style social democracy is offered as the defining criteria of state sovereignty in place of the imperative of popular self-rule.

Waiting to excavate the ruins of social democracy from beneath the crumbling EU will lead to nothing – as it is these ruins themselves that are the shaky foundations of today’s European order. In the face of the Left’s defeats in the 1970s, in the 1980s, many on the Left retreated to ‘social Europe’ in the hope that it would emplace supranational protections for the remnants of social democracy. It was contempt for mass democracy, representative institutions and popular support that sustained the Left in the delusions of ‘social Europe’, ‘global civil society’ and ‘global resistance’ over the last two decades. Tragic enough the first time, it would be a farcical error to repeat the same mistake now in reverse – retreating from the dissolved mirage of ‘social Europe’ into the empty desert that is national social democracy. Even while being remote from power, the leader of Podemos, Pablo Iglesias, already seems content to reside in this desert, as evidenced in in a remarkably cynical statement of political abdication when he discounted mass support in the name of compromise with Spanish social democracy.

One way to avoid this trucking in the politics of fantasy, whether pro- or anti-EU, is to see that the struggle against the EU is not the attempt defensively to rally the nation against supranational institutions in order to protect the welfare state, but that it is first and foremost a struggle to restore popular self-rule – or, in a word, sovereignty.

Philip Cunliffe

Look not to the peripheries

5 Aug

In recent weeks, Yannis Varoufakis, former Greek Finance Minister, has been under fire because of a secret group he ran, from February to June, whose purpose was to plan for a possible Grexit. Some have charged him with treason – primarily because his group hacked into the Greek Finance Ministry to acquire information they needed for the planning. Others defended him.

Whatever the stakes of this minor power struggle, it is a sideshow. In fact, Greece itself is not even the story. In this post-agreement moment, as the Tsipras government capitulates to the Eurogroup’s diktats, we need to grasp the dramatic failure of Syriza’s strategy in its proper context: the wider exhaustion of Left politics. The primary lesson is not (only) that Syriza failed but that the Left, across Europe, is politically exhausted. It is important to identify this weakness not only to acknowledge the limits of what Syriza could ever have done, but also to counter the emergent left-populist view that this is all about Germany.

To be sure, Tsipras deserves some blame. If the only planning for Grexit was happening in secret, on condition it never be made public and therefore never part of the bargaining strategy, then it was not just a pointless activity but a sign of Tsipras’ opportunistic willingness to use the Greeks as a stage army. They were there to vote, but never to have a real option granted. After all, for an exit to be a democratic act aimed at something like self-determination outside the Eurozone, it could not be a mere technocratic process of figuring out how to print and distribute notes, denominate payments, and sort out IOUs. It might have required seizing banks to prevent capital flight, nationalizing industries to prevent them being bought up by oligarchs who were hoarding euros outside Greece, rationing of certain basic supplies, even subsistence level economic production for a time. That is something the Greeks would have had to have been prepared for, something asked of them, and something which would have needed explicit popular backing. Tsipras made no effort in this direction and one has to think that he did not ultimately believe in his own people enough even to put the question to them.

Nevertheless, we should not lose sight of the extraordinary constraints that Tsipras and the Syriza government generally were under. They took power after Greece had already been through multiple rounds of austerity and seen roughly a quarter of its GDP evaporate. The financial thuggery by the European Central Bank, which engineered a quasi-bank failure in the last days of the negotiations by drastically reducing emergency funding, was illegal and extremely coercive. President of the Eurogroup, Jeroen Djisselbloem, doubled down on the threat, saying “we are going to collapse your banks.” It was clear that Schäuble wanted to turn Greece into something like debtor’s colony and was willing to take only that or let Greece go altogether. Even if Tsipras had, from the very beginning, made more effort to plan for the exit, looked for alternate sources of financing, pre-emptively printed drachmas, readied to seize the banks, moved to nationalize key assets, prepared capital controls, and taken the 50 other steps necessary to minimize the costs of exit, the democratic act would not have been a revolutionary step into a heroic, post-austerian future. It would have been a necessary, high-cost, step away from the clutches of the Eurozone.

The reason Greece was so limited in options is that Syriza had no meaningful support from the rest of the European Left. It had no support because the mainstream left parties, from the German SPD to the French Socialists, on through other Western European parties, have so fully committed themselves to the Eurozone and to some version of austerity that they were in no position to open the space within which a proper resistance to the Eurogroup’s divide-and-conquer sadomonetarism could be challenged. Syriza ran up against some world-historic limits that allowed someone other than the Left to dictate not just the basic terms but also the governing ideas of public discourse.

The best way to appreciate this is to note what could have been said but wasn’t. For one, it is striking how quickly the sovereign debt crisis of 2010 became pitched in nationalist terms, as a competition between creditor and debtor nations. In fact, the sovereign debt crisis had its origins in reckless lending by major French and German banks, which mirrored some of the profligacy and corruption of the Mediterranean spenders, and the majority of the money of the early bailouts was channeled into making those banks whole. This was true across the board but especially true in Greece. As Mark Blyth notes:

Greece was thus a mere conduit for a bailout. It was not a recipient in any significant way, despite what is constantly repeated in the media. Of the roughly 230 billion euro disbursed to Greece, it is estimated that only 27 billion went toward keeping the Greek state running. Indeed, by 2013 Greece was running a surplus and did not need such financing. Accordingly, 65 percent of the loans to Greece went straight through Greece to core banks for interest payments, maturing debt, and for domestic bank recapitalization demanded by the lenders. By another accounting, 90 percent of the “loans to Greece” bypassed Greece entirely.

The European people funded the bank bailouts, preserving their irrational financial system, and effectively nationalizing the debt through the Troika institutions. This could have been the start of more democratic control over the economy. Instead, the price of the bailouts was austerity for the southern countries, even less democracy (remember two elected governments, in Italy and Greece, were replaced by unelected technocrats), and worst of all the transformation of a conflict between the people and their economic system into a conflict between creditor and debtor nations. After all, once the majority of the debt was nationalized through the bailouts, the French, Dutch, other Northern Europeans, but above all the Germans, became creditors for the Italians, Spaniards, Portuguese and Greeks. The parties of the Left in these Northern countries could have tried to resist the nationalist impulse that coursed through the financial circuits of the European Financial Stability Facility/European Stability Mechanism, Emergency Liquidity Assistance, and other conduits of the bailout programs. They were, however, so thoroughly compromised by their commitment to the EU and the euro, not to mention their cooperation with what we now know as austerity, that there was no way out.

Consider the Germans. Any left-wing politician worth his salt could have pointed out that the way Schäuble talked about Greeks in public was likely how he talks about German workers in private. And, further, that Schäuble represented the interests of a fraction of German capital, not the German people as whole. Indeed, a German politician could have further pointed out that keeping Greece in but forcing it into deeper internal devaluation – namely, benefits reduction and wage repression – simply threatens to lower the wage floor for all of Europe, especially since the latest agreement also involved a direct assault on labor rights. However, the German SDP has been imposing wage stagnation on its own working class for the last two decades, most notably with the Hartz reforms of the early 2000s, imposed more or less in tandem with the rise of the euro. These reforms, pushed through when the SPD’s Gerhard Schröder was Chancellor, reduced benefits and contributed to wage stagnation. Even when the SDP lost to Merkel’s Christian Democrats, they agreed to be the junior partner in a governing coalition, in exchange for a few concessions, some lousy portfolios, and fealty to Merkel’s vision of Germany in Europe.

This has left the only significant party with any capacity for opposition utterly compromised. How do you tell workers whom you have been telling to accept wage stagnation and benefits reductions that they should now turn around and spend more money bailing out Greeks? Why save Greek benefits when your own are being chipped away? The SPD has no answers, no capacity even to generate answers, and even if it had generated answers, it could have never presented itself as a credible opposition, able to support the Greeks. That is why the whole affair looked like a unified, German hegemonic operation. Not because Germany really does have a national interest in dominating Europe – no working class has a stake in intensified nationalistic conflict – but because the expression of class divisions has been suppressed by the mainstream Left party itself.

A similar story could be told about the French Socialist Party. As already argued on The Current Moment, the French Parti Socialiste (PS) is not a working class party. Indeed, the abandonment of the working class by the French Left goes some way to explaining the popularity of the Front National amongst the young working class French. They rightly judge that the PS no longer represents them. Hollande’s tepid support for Tsipras soon after the latter’s election quickly turned into hostility. Hollande’s intervention at the last minute to stop Schäuble’s push for Grexit was a matter of French national interests, not of ideological or class solidarity. Hollande calculated that a German-provoked Grexit would make life in the Eurozone quite a bit more difficult, with rules ever more rigid. A similar calculation was made by Italy’s Matteo Renzi.

The PS’s commitment to European integration and monetary union stems from Mitterrand’s u-turn on membership of the European Monetary System (and the Exchange Rate Mechanism within it) in 1984. Whilst Mitterrand justified his decision to remain in the EMS in the language of Europe and peace, it fitted with his wider goals. He had become convinced of the need to reform the French economy through domestic adaptation rather than to use devaluations of the French franc as a basis for economic competiveness. The EMS was a rules-based framework that would help Mitterrand to pursue this strategy. De Gaulle’s attempt at internal reform failed with the general strike of 1968 and a devaluation in 1969. The Barre Plan of 1976 had also failed, which was why Mitterrand’s alternative of ‘Keynesianism in one country’ had been so popular in 1981. When he abandoned it a few years later, he brought the PS in line with the now established view about the need for an external monetary anchor to encourage reform internally. Mitterrand’s conversion to the power of external rules has become a core belief within the PS and there was no chance that Hollande, Valls, Fabius or Macron would challenge this by supporting Syriza. For them, as for the rest of the European Left, there is no alternative to this way of conducting economic policy.

The failure we see is, therefore, not just one of parties taking the wrong stance, or being compromised by their past commitments. It is also the dearth of alternative, left-wing ideas. Being anti-austerity is no longer enough, and it hasn’t been for a long time. It is one thing to say that turning Greece into a debtor’s colony, or undermining the European welfare state, is immoral. It is another to have some conception of and belief in the alternative. No doubt one reason that Tsipras and Syriza were afraid of what Grexit would take is because few found it credible even to consider nationalizing the banks. They only got as far as capital controls, very likely an example of how halfway can be worse than none or all. But the point is that, beyond outrage, there isn’t much in the way of a credible Left alternative to what gets shoved down the people’s throats each time the dollars or Euros run out. In such a political and ideological climate, there is little the Greeks could have done.

In fact, the degree of hope invested in Syriza by the wider European Left, especially around the time of the referendum, was the product of political displacement – not so dissimilar from left-wing support for the ‘Yes’ vote in the Scottish referendum last year. Unable to lead directly, the Left will project its needs and desires onto anything that looks vaguely oppositional, and Syriza had the added advantage of having some actual left-wing elements in it. If Syriza failed to lead, their failure only reflected the wider Left’s failure to imagine itself leading a popular movement that is willing to take responsibility for running society out of the hands of a bankrupt elite.

This is a failure not only of Syriza, but of the only other significant movements that have emerged out of the European status quo. Consider Pablo Iglesias, leader of Spain’s Podemos Party. In July Iglesias took pains to distance himself from Greece and to commit himself, if elected, to staying in the euro. He then openly professed that there is nothing he can do to resist the anti-democratic character of the EU – despite claiming the right to lead 45 million people. What better sign that it is not only the technocrats of Europe that are queasy about democracy. The peripheries and the core are constrained by the weakness of the Left everywhere.

Alex Gourevitch

Why Syriza Failed

31 Jul

Recent events in Greece have baffled many observers. Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras walked out of talks with Greece’s creditors, calling a snap referendum on their proposals. It appeared to be crunch time. Tspiras denounced the EU’s ‘blackmail-ultimatum’, urging ‘the Hellenic people’ to defend their ‘sovereignty’ and ‘democracy’, while EU figures warned a ‘no’ vote would mean Greece leaving the Euro. Yet, even during the referendum campaign, while ostensibly pushing for a ‘no’ vote, Tsipras offered to accept the EU’s terms with but a few minor tweaks. And no sooner had the Greek people apparently rejected EU-enforced austerity than their government swiftly agreed to pursue harsher austerity measures than they had just rejected, merely in exchange for more negotiations on debt relief. This bizarre sequence of events can only be understood as a colossal political failure by Syriza. Elected in January to end austerity, they will now preside over more privatisation, welfare cuts and tax hikes.

How can we explain this failure? I argue three factors were key. First, the terrible ‘good Euro’ strategy pursued by Syriza, the weakness of which should have been apparent from the outset. The second factor, which shaped the first, is the overwhelmingly pro-EU sentiment among Greek citizens and elites, which created a strong barrier to ‘Grexit’ in the absence of political leadership towards independence. Third, the failure of the pro-Grexit left, including within Syriza, to win Syriza and the public over to a pro-Grexit position.

The ‘good Euro’ fantasy

The strategy pursued by Tspiras and his former finance minister, Yanis Varoufakis, has been dubbed the ‘good Euro’ approach. Essentially, they argued that a resolution to Greece’s economic depression could be found within the confines of the single European currency. The failure of previous governments to do this was simplistically assigned to the fact that they ‘never negotiated’ with the Troika but merely implemented its demands. Instead, Syriza would make common cause with other anti-austerity groups and sympathetic governments across Europe, pushing for more favourable bailout terms. This involved an attempt to ‘delegitimise’ the creditors by appealing – as Tsipras did even when denouncing the creditors – to the ‘founding principles and values of Europe’, supposedly norms of social justice like ‘rights to work, equality and… dignity’. From this perspective, the referendum was never intended to be a decisive moment for the restoration of Greek democracy and autonomy. It was merely called to strengthen the Greek government’s position when bargaining with the creditors, which is why Tsipras never stopped seeking another ‘bailout’ even as campaigning was underway.

But to any clear-eyed observer, this strategy was disastrous from the outset, because it rested on two flawed premises.

The first was that the allies Syriza sought were either too weak, or simply did not exist. Perhaps the most remarkable thing about the European response to the global financial crisis has been the near-total absence of any effective resistance to the conversion of a banking crisis into a fiscal crisis of the state and from there to the imposition of austerity. With the exception of Greece and Spain, elections across Europe have tended to shift goverments to the right, even – as in Britain – after five years of cuts to state spending. The lack of effective anti-austerity resistance itself reflects the wider collapse of left-wing political forces from the 1980s. The disarray of the rump parties of social democracy, clearly unable to offer any alternative to austerity, is merely the prolonged death rattle of this epochal defeat. This was never promising terrain for a ‘good Euro’ strategy.

One hope of Syriza was the rise of Podemos in Spain – like Syriza, a loose alliance emerging from street-level, anti-austerity protests. But, as Varoufakis rapidly realised, ‘there was nothing they could do – their voice could never penetrate the Eurogroup’. Similarly, while Syriza notionally classified EU governments as pro-austerity, anti-austerity and neutral, with pro-austerity governments ostensibly in the minority, it was unable to leverage any international support. The French – perhaps the main hope – promised support in private, but criticised Greece in public. Nor were the governments of other countries suffering from EU-imposed austerity sympathetic. In fact, Varoufakis recalls, ‘from the very beginning… [they] made it abundantly clear that they were the most energetic enemies of our government… their greatest nightmare was our success: were we to succeed in negotiating a better deal for Greece, that would of course obliterate them politically, they would have to answer to their own people why they didn’t negotiate like we were doing.’ It should therefore have been immediately clear to Syriza that the building materials for the progressive bloc it hoped to construct simply did not exist.

The second flawed premise was ‘leftist Europeanism’, the idea that the European Union is primarily about values of ‘social justice’, such that appeals to these values could overcome demands for austerity. Again, this notion was ludicrous from the outset. By the time Syriza was elected, the EU had already subjected the Greek people to grotesque abuses. These include: 25 percent unemployment (57 percent among youths) by 2012; the mass collapse of small businesses; a 25 percent rise in homelessness from 2009-11; a 75 percent rise in suicides from 2009-11; mass emigration; and a massive health crisis, with spikes in epidemic diseases and a drop in life expectancy of three years (a phenomenon generally only seen in war-torn countries), nonetheless followed by a further 94% cut in health funding from 2014-15. Even pro-EU liberals outside Greece are now reconsidering their naïve faith in ‘social Europe’ after what has happened there. To any Greek, the real values being pursued through the EU ought to have been crystal clear. As one Varoufakis advisor notes, ‘the only weapons… [Syriza brought] to the negotiating table were reason, logic and European solidarity. But apparently we live in a Europe where none of those things mean anything.’

Eurobarom 1


Eurobarometer: percentage of EU citizens expressing trust in EU institutions. Source.

 Eurobarom 2

Eurobarometer: what does the EU mean to you personally? Source.

As Varoufakis and Tspiras discovered almost immediately, EU institutions have little to do with democracy, either. The informal Eurogroup of Finance Ministers, Varoufakis notes, makes ‘decisions of almost life and death, and no member has to answer to anybody’. ‘From the very beginning’ (i.e. from their first meeting in February), Varoufakis encountered a ‘complete lack of any democratic scruples, on behalf of the supposed defenders of Europe’s democracy’. Germany’s finance minister told him: ‘Elections cannot change anything’. Some ministers agreed with Syriza’s critique of austerity, but essentially said, ‘we’re going to crunch you anyway.’ What further demonstration did Syriza need that EU leaders are not interested in social justice, only containing the Euro-crisis – and thereby protecting their own shoddy financial institutions from debt default and contagion – by making Greece the whipping boy of Europe?

The Greek fetish of European membership

Unsurprisingly, critics had declared the ‘good Euro’ strategy a failure as early as February, while Varoufakis’s post-resignation interviews reveal that its chief executors also swiftly recognised its flaws. So why did it ever appear a good idea in the first place? Ultimately, Syriza was elected on a platform both of ending austerity and remaining in the Euro – the latter position being shared by all of its main political rivals and by 80 percent of the public. This contradictory position reflects the attachment of Greek citizens and elites to ‘Europe’ as a refuge from their domestic political difficulties, and thus a reluctance to confront and resolve these difficulties alone.

As The Current Moment’s co-editor, Chris Bickerton, has shown, this is part of a general trend across the EU. From the 1970s, faced with crises of rising expectations and increasing social unrest, European elites have – through varying national trajectories – tried to create a new social, political and economic settlement by entrenching themselves within international elite networks. The EU’s structures are generally not supranational authorities but rather elite solidarity clubs, where ministers pursuing unpopular ‘reform’ agendas can draw upon each other’s support against their respective populations, thereby basing the content and legitimacy of their actions not on democratic mandates but on the legalistic European processes of policy coordination and harmonisation. By linking virtually every state apparatus across European borders, elites have thereby transformed once-sovereign nation-states into EU ‘member-states’, heavily constrained, with popular sovereignty deliberately negated. European elites can no longer imagine life outside of these structures, because it would represent a vast step-change: a need to re-engage with their own populations as the sole source of their authority, and the need to articulate clear political visions for their nations instead of relying on the latest EU action plan to guide their polities.

Each member-state has followed its own particular trajectory into this dismal arrangement. In Portugal, Spain and Greece, the process was strongly marked by their 1970s transition from authoritarian rule. In much the same way as the recent Scottish referendum proposed to make Scotland independent of the United Kingdom but immediately constrain its autonomy by retaining EU membership, these southern European nations emerged from authoritarian rule only to constrain democratic choice by swiftly joining the then European Economic Community. For the Greeks, joining ‘Europe’ was apparently a way to help draw a line under the past. It signalled their rejection of military rule, their ‘identity’ ‘as Europeans’, their distinction from authoritarian neighbours like Albania and Turkey. And it precluded the return of authoritarianism by locking Greece into various intergovernmental agreements and processes that entrenched liberal rights. The same motive and process had guided the formation of the European Convention on Human Rights in the early post-war years, and the later flight of Eastern European states from ‘Brezhnev to Brussels’, as Bickerton puts it.

Thus, for wide swathes of the Greek public, and especially the liberal and left elite, membership of the EU is valued precisely for its constraints. The fear, as Varoufakis himself clearly articulated, is that the beneficiaries of Grexit would not be the ‘progressive left, that will rise Phoenix-like from the ashes of Europe’s public institutions’, but rather ‘the Golden Dawn Nazis, the assorted neofascists, the xenophobes and the spivs’. His successor, Euclid Tsakalotos, issued similar warnings from the foreign ministry. Their fear was essentially of what the Greek people would do, left to their own devices.

This concern is hardly unique to Syriza. Across Europe, the dominant – perhaps only – elite justification for European integration is that its only alternative is a return to nationalism (or worse) and war. The Greek version of this politics of fear is simply mediated through the recent historical experience of military rule. Syriza’s embrace of this pessimistic narrative clearly signified a profound lack of faith in its own capacity to lead Greeks towards a more progressive future as an independent nation.

This quite widespread ideological attachment to Europe was undoubtedly reinforced by the apparent economic benefits of EU membership before the Euro crisis. In 1974, when the Colonels’ regime fell, Greek GDP per capita was just $2,839. When Greece joined the EEC in 1981, it was $5,400. By 2001, when Greece joined the Euro, per capita income had more than doubled to $12,418. Under the Euro, average incomes then nearly tripled to $31,701 by 2008. Greece literally appeared to go from third world to first in the space of two generations. In real terms, of course, the increase was always smaller – from $12,829 to $24,148 from 1974-2008 – but this was still a significant ‘catching up’ with other European states. As is now widely recognised, much of the post-2001 boom was fuelled by reckless borrowing and its benefits were always maldistributed, with a narrow oligarchy dominating a state-led patronage system. This is undoubtedly why the Greek oligarchy, while evading the consequences of austerity itself, has waged a strong pro-EU campaign, including through the media organisations it dominates, and is implacably opposed to Syriza, which had pledged to ‘destroy’ the ‘oligarchy system’. However, economic benefits also flowed to a wider coalition, with handouts like early pensions for professional groups and public sector unions supportive of the status quo.

graphic 3

Greek GDP Per Capita, current US$. Source.


graphic 4


Greek GDP Per Capita (Purchasing Power Parity) 1990=100. Source.

Combined, these factors seem to have made many Greeks leery of Grexit, even as the economy shrivelled. For some, when the crisis struck, there was apparently a guilty sense of the chickens coming home to roost – that ‘the party was over’ – with two-thirds of Greeks actually supporting austerity in 2010. Although this support collapsed over the next four years, fuelling the rise of Syriza, fear of the unknown remained very strong. Even in the most favourable scenarios, restoring the drachma would be hugely destabilising in the short to medium term and risk undoing the residual benefits of Euro membership. This motivation seems particularly strong among those with most to lose.

All of this helps explain the structural constraints facing Syriza leaders upon their election. The Greeks were both tired of austerity and yet fearful of exiting the Euro. Consequently, they demanded an end to austerity within the Euro. Squaring this circle was an impossible task.

But this should not let Syriza off the hook. Insofar as Syriza leaders understood that these popular demands were incompatible, they ought to have exercised political leadership by trying to lead the Greek citizenry towards a more rational position. The most crucial step was to outline a compelling vision for a Greek economy independent of the Euro, where life might be tough for a few years (but probably no tougher than under perpetual EU-imposed austerity), and recovery was eventually possible via the currency devaluation that every sane economist argues is both essential for Greece’s recovery and impossible within the Euro. This Syriza comprehensively failed to do.

Despite their leftist élan, its leaders seem just as incapable as their European counterparts of imagining a future for themselves and their country outside the strictures of European integration. Syriza’s failure remains one of leadership and strategy, irreducible simply to popular attitudes. The Syriza leadership has now embraced a deal that it openly admits is rotten, claiming ‘there is no alternative’. This merely signals a refusal to accept political responsibility for articulating an alternative. Ultimately, they – like the leaders of Europe’s other ‘member-states’ – are too afraid of the consequences of genuinely restoring autonomous, democratic decision-making to their nation. As Stathis Kouvelakis comments, this reflects their ‘entrapment in the ideology of left-Europeanism’. When Greek officials denounce the ‘almost neo-fascist euro dictatorship’, they are heaping the blame entirely on German sadomonetarism while evading their own failure to rebel against it, however difficult that rebellion would undoubtedly be.

As a consequence of this hesitancy, Syriza leaders spurned the growing social basis for a pro-Grexit line, which emerged despite, not because of, them. While in January 2015, 80 percent of Greeks favoured remaining in the Euro, by the time of the referendum this figure had fallen to 45 percent, with 42 percent favouring the serious consideration of Grexit.

The left’s failure to produce Grexit

This leaves one remaining question: why were those on the left, able to see all of the foregoing problems, unable to change Syriza’s course? After all, much of the above criticism of the ‘good Euro’ strategy was initially articulated by figures within Syriza, most notably Costas Lapavitsas, Stathis Kouvelakis and others members of its ‘Left Platform’. The Greek far left has also long demanded Grexit. Left Platform figures had adopted a position of ‘no more sacrifices for the Euro’ in 2012/13 and have long argued for default and Grexit, with apparently growing support. 44 percent of Syriza’s Central Committee backed the Left Platform’s call to break from negotiations and pursue a radical ‘plan B’ in late May. Tsipras was reportedly being constrained by their resistance in parliament in June. After the referendum, the Left apparently won over a (bare) majority of Syriza’s Central Committee to oppose capitulation, backed by many grassroots activists. Yet, only 38 Syriza legislators (out of 149) rebelled against the government (six of whom merely abstained). Although this left

Tsipras dependent on opposition legislators to survive, in subsequent votes that number has shrunk to 36 (with Varoufakis among the defectors), while Left Platform ministers have been sacked or resigned. Amazingly, the ‘good Euro’ strategy persists.

Part of the explanation for this is the nature of Syriza itself as a loose coalition rather than a traditional leftist party. Initially merely an electoral coalition, formed to contest the 2004 elections, Syriza became a party only in 2012, merging 13 political groups ranging from social democrats to hard-line Marxists. Syriza’s dominant parliamentary faction has always been Synaspismós, itself a democratic socialist coalition, led by Tsipras. Syriza’s ‘Left Platform’ – comprising the ‘Left Current’ and ‘Red Network’ – are relative newcomers and, even when joined by the Communist Organisation of Greece (KOE), also a Syriza member – simply lack the numbers required to impose their preferences.

Moreover, despite the 2012 merger, Syriza did not develop party structures capable of discussing, determining and imposing a collective ‘party line’. This looseness permitted a high degree of open internal dissent and had a ‘horizontalist’ flavour much celebrated by contemporary critics of traditional leftist parties. But the downside is that this organisational form effectively permitted the central leadership to determine policy, while more critical elements simply became a sort of internal ‘loyal opposition’.

Syriza’s leftist elements were not unaware of this, but were compelled to join the party having failed in their initial quest to form a broad, anti-EU alliance with the anti-capitalist left. As Kouvelathis describes it, the Left Platform crowd joined Syriza in 2012 only after these proposals left were rejected by the main component of Antarsya (Anticapitalist Left Cooperation for the Overthrow), a far-left coalition formed in 2009. The KKE, the Communist Party of Greece, also remained aloof. The sticking point was apparently the ultra-leftists’ insistence on a programme of immediate rupture from the Eurozone as the bulwark of ‘neoliberalism’. However, as noted earlier, in 2011/12 this position had virtually no popular support. Nor, reflecting the long-standing decline of Greece’s far left, did these far-left parties have any electoral standing.

Essentially, while Syriza had the wrong line but at least the capacity to get elected, the radical left arguably had the correct political line but lacked any capacity to translate it into policy. Following a crisis common to all European states in the 1980s, the Greek far-left has been extremely fragmented, remaining, despite the formation of horizontalist alliances, unable ‘to actually articulate an alternative project’, and producing ‘catastrophic electoral results’, according to Antarsya’s Panagiotis Sotiris. This strategic ineptitude led them, unlike Syriza, to fail to translate their mobilisation of Greeks in the 2011 ‘movement of the squares’ into party organisation and electoral success. This was arguably a serious failure of the horizontalist model with its renunciation of forming parties capable of seizing the state. As Sotiris laments: ‘we never realized that the question was about power… reclaiming governmental power. At that point, we did not have this position, but Syriza had it’.

Unsurprisingly, then, the Left Platform group threw in its lot with Syriza. But in so doing, it inevitably became somewhat marginalised and constrained: outnumbered within Syriza by centre-leftists and balanced within government by Syriza’s coalition partners, the right-wing Independent Greeks (ANEL). Through this Caesarist balancing act, as Kouvelakis recounts, ‘the government, the leadership, became totally autonomous of the party’. The lack of democratic structures within the loosely constituted party has permitted Tsipras to dominate: the Central Committee has not convened for months. But nor, it seems, has the Left Platform been willing to precipitate a full-on confrontation. Even when voting against the post-referendum ‘bailout’, it carefully manipulated its vote to try to avoid removing Tsipras’s majority support from within his party, the loss of which has traditionally triggered elections in Greece. (Ultimately, so many non-Left Platform Syriza MPs rebelled that this majority was lost anyway, although no election has been called.)

But these questionable tactics, an inevitable part of the difficulties of party politics, are probably secondary to the larger strategic failure, which was to neglect to present the citizenry with an alternative plan for Greece’s future outside the Euro until early July. Kouvelakis now admits this was a serious mistake.

It is not that the plan took forever to draft: it was already in hand long ago, but there was ‘internal hesitation about the appropriate moment to release it.’ This apparently stemmed partly from fears that Greece was ‘ready’ for Grexit. Lapavitsas has long argued for a managed and ‘orderly’ Grexit, but as late as 10 July he openly doubted whether any preparations had been made. Varoufakis’s subsequent revelation that only five officials had been tasked with this suggests that he was correct (as well as signifying his utter disinterest in alternatives to striking deals with the creditors). Essentially, reflecting its marginal position in the ruling coalition, the Left Platform was dependent on the governing part of Syriza to lay the technical ground for their Grexit strategy, which they clearly had no interest in doing. Its members had also become swept up in day-to-day events, Kouvelakis recalls, being ‘neutralized and overtaken by the endless sequence of negotiations and dramatic moments and so on… it was only when it was already too late… that [our] proposal was finally made public… This is clearly something we should have done before.’ The Left Platform thus failed to provide the leadership that their Syriza colleagues refused to provide and that their compatriots so badly needed.


What lessons can we draw from this sorry tale?

The main one is that the European left must shed its illusions about European solidarity. First, the EU is not, and has never been, a font of democracy and social justice. The left, broadly defeated at home through the 1980s, has increasingly put its faith in supranational institutions to protect human rights and social protections, including the EU’s ‘social chapter’. That this only ever expressed the left’s domestic weakness was starkly revealed when European elites combined after 2008 to inflict austerity on their own peoples, and domestic resistance was utterly ineffective. Appealing to EU leaders to uphold norms of democracy and social justice, as Syriza did, is clearly futile. Syriza should be credited with one achievement. It has finally pulled away the veil, forcing everyone to recognise the EU’s true character.

But, secondly, it is equally illusory to put one’s faith in European parties, peoples and social movements, in the hope of a transnational alliance capable of generating more progressive outcomes. This hope for a ‘counter-hegemonic bloc’, long expressed by Gramscian scholars of the EU, has been peddled for 20 years without success, expressed in forms like the European Social Forum, which ultimately go nowhere. Sadly, Syriza found little to no effective support beyond their own borders. Again, this reflects the collapse of progressive political organisations capable of turning humanitarian sympathy into meaningful political action.

This experience strongly suggests that the prevailing European order cannot be effectively contested by progressive forces at the European level. They are simply too weak and isolated. After all, part of the elites’ purpose in rescaling governance to the European level is precisely to outmanoeuvre opposition, which is rightly assumed to be less able to organise regionally than nationally. This suggests that progressive forces must operate primarily on the more hospitable terrain of the nation-state. They need to lead a movement among their own people, even if it means arguing with them, rather than relying on those abroad who already agree with them. This implies a need to recover space for this activism by reasserting the autonomy of domestic politics from European regulation – i.e., by reclaiming popular sovereignty.

Despite growing left-wing Euroscepticism, this step seems to remain anathema to most. Syriza’s leadership were openly leery of popular sovereignty, warning of a fascist revival. This fear is widespread among European elites, suggesting a strong suspicion of the masses, perhaps especially among supposed progressives. But even Syriza’s Left Platform seemed wary of articulating the necessary steps for the restoration of Greek autonomy, despite their clear premonitions of disaster. This is a sign of how deeply the ‘member-state’ mode of politics has been entrenched over several decades. It will be a hard habit to kick.

Another lesson concerns the organisational form and content of anti-EU resistance. Broad coalitions, rooted in societal mobilisations, are crucial, but insufficient without strong party organisation. Syriza’s formation as a party helped create the structures and programme necessary to help turn popular mobilisation into political power. It thereby achieved what every fashionable, ‘rhizomatic, horizontalist network’ – from Occupy to the Greek far left – has failed to: to exert some grip over state power and thus potentially leverage over social change. Yet, its absence of strong internal democracy also allowed its leaders to pursue an unworkable strategy and even betray the expressed wishes of the electorate. Against the Eurocrats for whom ‘elections cannot change anything’, the task is to rebuild truly democratic parties capable of articulating an alternative and attractive vision for the future of European societies.

Lee Jones



Why Torture a Victim Whose Will Is Already Broken?

14 Jul

The draft of the agreement between the Greeks and the Eurogroup is out and, as everyone has noticed, it is not just an act of revenge, it is a piece of legislative torture. It contains old demands, like pension reductions and higher taxes to fund primary surpluses, as well as new demands, like reduction in the power of unions and a massive privatization of state assets using a separate fund controlled by Greece but monitored by the EU’s institutions. In fact the document asks for a massive legislative program touching on every aspect of Greek economic life – tax policy, product regulation, labor markets, state-owned assets, financial sector, shipping, budget surpluses, pensions, and so on. This legislation is demanded within the next few weeks. Such a package is the kind of thing one sees during or just after wartime, not as the product of democratically negotiated decisions. Let’s remember that the programme on which Tsipras and the Eurogroup agreed is something asked of a country that has already experienced a very severe depression, already implemented a number of constraints requested by creditors, has 25% unemployment and a banking crisis. What is the point of torturing a victim whose will is already broken? To destroy all opposition.

I think this should not be read as a proposal for restoring growth to Greece or even as the reflection of an economic blindness in Europe but as the reflux of the EU political project, of which the euro is the purest expression: the preference for technocratic domination over popular sovereignty. This program describes an architecture of rule, one that expresses utter indifference to the attempt by peoples to manage their affairs democratically, and one that demands enormous reserves of discretionary power for the Eurogroup. Note not just the scope of the Eurogroup’s demands but the molecular level of detail with which they lay out demands. For instance, as part of their package of “ambitious product market reforms,” they insist on changes in “Sunday trade, sales periods, pharmacy ownership, milk and bakeries, except over-the-counter pharmaceutical products, which will be implemented in a next step, as well as for the opening of macro-critical closed professions (e.g. ferry transportation).” Then there are the new demands, like “rigorous reviews and modernization of collective bargaining [and] industrial action,” which is Eurospeak for rubbing out labor rights. Other demands make it clear that these decisions are not only extensive and fine-grained, but designed as much as possible to remove responsibility and control from the Greek people and their government. The “scaled up privatisation programme” is to “be established in Greece and be managed by the Greek authorities under the supervision of the relevant European Institutions.” And the “quasi-automatic spending cuts in case of deviations from ambitious primary surplus targets” are “subject to prior approval of the [European] Institutions.”

Most telling of all, “The government needs to consult and agree with the Institutions on all draft legislation in relevant areas with adequate time before submitting it for public consultation or to Parliament.” That is to say, on every above named area of reform – from tax policy to labor markets – the government must consult first with its European managers. The piece-de-resistance, however, is that the Greeks are maximally accountable to the Eurogroup while the Eurogroup is minimally accountable and maximally arbitrary. Having listed its demands the document then says, “The above-listed commitments are minimum requirements to start the negotiations with the Greek authorities.” Later, the document says that an ESM programme is possible “Provided that all the necessary conditions contained in this document are fulfilled.” There is no guarantee the money is forthcoming. In other words, the Eurogroup retains maximum discretion to decide that Greece has failed to meet any of the impossible demands made upon it, while the Greeks possess no similar ability to hold the Europeans to account for their failures. Recall, for instance, that the agreement requires Greece to run budget surpluses that the Germans and French have never managed to achieve and that the ECB recently refused to extend sufficient emergency financing to the Greek banks, essentially engineering a near bank-failure in direct violation of its mandate to provide emergency liquidity to illiquid banks.

There are those who think that you can be pro-Euro and anti-austerity. As this round of negotiations show, the economics and politics of the euro are not separated like that. The Euro is a political project. It is unification without sovereignty. It is the delegation of national sovereignty to groups of finance ministers and supranational bodies whose main task is to suppress the re-appearance of the very source of their power. The political institutions and practices that have grown up around the euro and the EU are based on the belief that exercises of sovereignty are dangerous, irresponsible, and unaccountable. Although these institutions are in one sense nothing more than the product of agreements between nations, their raison d’etre is to prevent any further, outright expression of that sovereign power. That is why they insist on total subjection to their decisions, and why Greece became about more than Greece. The Greeks dared to assert popular sovereignty at the only level it is currently possible to do so. The bitter irony being that the discretion demanded by these post-sovereign entities is less accountable than when exercised as the outright power of a democratically elected government. And no less vindictive.

Alex Gourevitch



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